Umek Talks Eastern Bloc EDM and Party for a Cause Music Festival
The breadth of DJ-producer Uros Umek's achievements during the course of his two-decade career simply cannot be overstated. Not only did he help kick-start the local electronic dance music scene in his native Slovenia after the fall of the Iron Curtain but he went on to conquer the global techno scene as one of its biggest stars. He's a permanent fixture on DJ Mag's prestigious Top 100 DJs poll and even made the 2011 Beatport Staff Pick Artist of the Year.
But Umek is also a candidate for most humanitarian DJ in the world, having founded the annual Party for a Cause music festival in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, an event that draws as many as 30,000 festivalgoers each year, raising funds and support for both local and international charity organizations.
Ahead of a headlining performance for Kontrol Thursdays at Mansion this week, Crossfade caught up with the man himself to chat about Eastern Bloc EDM, Party for a Cause, and the life of a globetrotting DJ superstar.
Crossfade: Electronic dance music must have been very rare when you were growing up in Slovenia during the post-Soviet years. When did you first encounter this type of music? Where did you first start hearing it, and how did you go about finding records when you first began DJing in the early '90s?
Umek: Well, for me it was the post-Yugoslavian years -- not totally the same thing, but still behind the Iron Curtain with the full-on socialism experience. I've always had an ear for electronic music. I grew up in the '80s, and I remember listening to the then-popular singers and bands such as Falco, Human League, Modern Talking, and local acts like Denis & Denis or Videosex, who were using a lot of electronic elements in their mainstream productions. And then, in the early '90s, the borders fell down and the whole generation suddenly became exposed to so many new sounds. It was just the right time when I discovered this new electronic music coming mostly from the Germany at the time.
At that time, it was really hard for me to be in touch with electronic music, as the scene in Slovenia was literally non-existing till the beginning of the '90s, when I discovered the Cool Night show hosted by Aldo Ivancic, MC Brane and Primoz Pecovnik on Radio Student. They played all kinds of electronic music, from trance to rave, techno, EBM, some really dark stuff. And they were also hosting a resident night in the student union-ran Club K4. I became a regular, and I there got in touch with artists such as Jure Havlicek (Anna Lies, Moob, now producing nu-disco under the moniker Sare Havlicek) who invited me to his studio and showed me how this music is done. Soon after that, I started doing my first steps as a producer, and so it began.
What was the electronic dance music scene in Ljubljana when you first started DJing and organizing parties? Did you encounter any challenges or resistance from the authorities when you were throwing these first parties?
As I've already said, we had no media and party infrastructure for that kind of music. We'd had to travel 500 kilometers away to Munich or Vienna by old smelly shopping buses without air condition to buy a couple of vinyls each time, and it was hard to even get any information about who is who on the scene, what's happening and which tracks were the hottest. So we'd had to build our local scene from scratch, and with a lot of improvisation, as we didn't have a clue about how to produce music, organize events or anything else, in fact. We just played it by the feel and learned everything on the go.
This was already a post-communist era. Slovenia declared independence in the early summer of 1991, and our transition was quite soft. We adopted a new political system fast and without rough cuts. People who used to work in the police or in public administration remained in their positions, they only had to adapt to the new set of rules, system of human rights, and limitations of their powers.
But adapting to that did take some time. So it's not a surprise it was almost impossible to get the permission to organize these kind of all-night events in the early years of our democracy. We could do something till 2 a.m., and they were more open to allow these kinds of events around New Year and some other festive occasions, when people were more tolerant to noise and partying. At that time, it was still the police who was approving all the paper work, not the ministry of internal affairs or a local community, as it is usual in democratic states. So we were careful to obey the rules.
Nowadays, we are part of the E.U., and the rules and standards for organizing these kinds of events are more or less the same as everywhere in the E.U., which is not that different to the situation in the States. And the government is quite tolerant to the scene. They only show power when something goes wrong, because of the media hype, but that luckily only happens once in couple of years.
Do you think that people in Slovenia were drawn to the personal freedom and escapism of electronic dance music and the rave scene because of the oppression suffered behind the Iron Curtain for so long?
There's always fertile ground for techno in a rebellious environment, be it in post-socialist country or a city such as Detroit in the '80s, as well as in a current economic and social decline. The experience of socialism and oppression definitely induced our taste for a dark, hard, heavy, sometimes even industrial techno sound. You can spot the same influences in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia -- throughout the whole region. So it's not a coincidence that the local scene was grounded and developed predominately on techno, which was not the case in some other environments that have spawned house and trance scenes.
Back in 2011, we here at Crossfade included you on our list of the World's Least Douchey DJs for founding and organizing the annual Party for a Cause humanitarian music festival in Ljubljana. How did the idea for this event first come about and how has it evolved over the years? Do you think the festival has the potential to keep growing and expanding in the future?
This project started as a collision of me and my friends wanting to do big outdoor music events, and one of Slovenia's leading telecommunication companies looking for a new platform for their social awareness campaign. It's a corporate gig but with a strong human touch that already took over, and more and more companies and people want to be involved, as they see we are doing good work with the support of the mayor and the president of the state. We are promoting non-violence and solidarity, and we encourage young people to get involved and to try to change things in their own communities, among friends, in school.
This project first started almost ten years ago, as a Christmastime open-air party in the historical part of the city center, with a couple of DJs and musicians performing. I didn't play at that first edition, but I did set the pace for the rest of the series with the suggestion we should further develop it into a laid-back healthy outdoor get-together in the Tivoli Park, which is a popular recreational zone for the citizens. Already the next year we moved the whole thing there, put me on the bill as a sole headliner, and moored this event in the calendar, on the last Saturday in August, which coincides with the closing of Adriatic clubs and end of summer festivals in the region. This was the right decision, as we now attract between 20,000 and 30,000 people each year.
We've so far gathered hundreds of thousands of Euros in charity, helped support young cancer victims, young victims of criminal acts, we've established scholarship funds, and this is now one of the most known and outstanding charity initiatives in Slovenia, with amazing media support, and it attracts people from all over the country as well as the neighboring regions.
Further development, expansion and growth of the project are primarily in the hands of Simobil, the company that owns the rights and pays for the whole thing. There were already two attempts to expand it with spin-off events based on indie music, headlined by live acts such as MGMT and Klaxons in Slovenia's second largest city, Maribor. But that didn't really take off.
For now, I don't see we could move this project to other countries, mostly because of the bad economic situation in the region. But in general, the concept is universal and we could stage it at almost any other city in the world. Till we do that, everybody can participate at least by sharing the message of non-violence and supporting good cause actions in the local community. We need help in doing that anywhere on the globe.
How do you think your taste in music as a listener and DJ-producer has evolved since the first electronic dance music records you got into as a teenager? What are the sonic elements and ingredients you look for in music these days? What turns you on the most?
I don't really listen to much music in my private life -- that's either work-related or when something is playing in a background in the gym. You can check how my taste developed trough the years simply by listening to what I was releasing on my labels from Absence and Consumer Recreation to Recycled Loops and Astrodisco, and my current platform 1605. In general I started with all kind of electronic music, became a techno purist with a taste for a dark, fast, hard and energetic sound, and then throughout the years, I developed a more eclectic taste, and now I'm stuck somewhere between contemporary techno and tech-house music.
It's interesting how one's taste in music changes through the years. Now I'm more intrigued by different sounds and elements of tracks than 10 or 20 years ago. But I did always aspire to produce the best sound, the best arrangements, and everything else I could do. That's what is pushing me to search for new ways of production, new tools, and new directions. If you listen to my early productions and what I do now, you'd think totally different artists have produced them.
So what's going on with your labels at the moment? Which artists are you most excited to be releasing work from? Any new names bringing the heat?
I only manage one label, 1605 Music Therapy. All others are things of the past. We are proud supporters of fresh artists from our home region, the Western Balkans, and the rest of Eastern Europe, because there's still so much unexposed talent as most of the industry is run by Western companies and they are pushing their own talent. As in the last five years we grew, we are now in the global spotlight and producers from all over the globe want to work with us. We don't have a problem working with anybody, from established artists to guys without a single release, as long as they deliver.
The policy of the label is very simple: if I like the particular track and I play it, it might get signed to 1605. But we do focus on the Eastern Bloc a bit more, and we pay a lot of attention to keeping this balance between East and West, as well as already established artists and newcomers. We just released our 5-year anniversary compilation with 45 titles, and the majority of featured tracks were produced by freshmen such as Mladen Tomic, DJ Fronter, Ant Brooks, Vlada Asanin, Gaga, Jordi Castillo, Sergio Parto, Steve Kid and Lui Maldonado, to name just a few.
You've boasted of holding a record for number of flights per year -- at the very least you are one of the handful of greatest DJ globetrotters on the international techno scene. Which are some of your favorite party spots in the world? And how does Miami compare to some of the other dance music capitals where you've played?
For me, it's hard to pick just a couple of places, as I have good time wherever the tour is taking me. I like discovering new places, as well as returning to the clubs and festivals I've already visited, as everywhere I go, promoters and the audience are happy to see me and they treat me good. The same goes for Miami, which I like visiting professionally as well as in private, especially during the winter. So I can't wait to be back in a couple of days. I like the sun, though I've also experienced the rainy season with that heavy humidity, which is really not pleasant in combination with a high temperature. But most of my memories are good. I like the club scene, people, the laid back feeling, that typical Latin temperament, beaches, good shopping, movie theatres, food. Everything is at hand. The only thing missing for me is the ski slope.
So what can fans expect from you next? Any forthcoming projects or releases we should keep a lookout for?
Well, my American, Mexican and Canadian fans should know I'll spend the second half of June in North America. The peak of this tour will be a performance at the sold-out Electric Daisy Carnival, where I'll play on the main stage for the first time. At 1605, we've just released our 5-year anniversary compilation, my remix of Parov Stelar's "All Night", and next is my collaboration with one of my favorite American artists, DJ Dan. I've also started working on a new artist album that will feature a bunch of interesting guests. It's scheduled for early 2014 and will be released on one of the top EDM labels.
Another very important thing is that I'm moving to the USA for three months this autumn. Due to great demand for my performances in the States, we've decided to do a larger series of gigs at once, as I'm already doing a couple of USA tours annually, and I'm flying overseas all the time, which is quite exhausting as I'm really not comfortable flying due to my aerophobia. Before that, I still have to do a bunch of festivals in Europe, and I'll be playing eight gigs in Ibiza this year, four as a supporting DJ for Carl Cox at his Revolution series at Space. I already did a season opening gig at Jag Beach Club, I'll do one in Pacha, one in Privilege with Deeperfect, and another one at Eden with Toolroom.
Umek. Presented by Kontrol. Thursday, June 13. Mansion, 1235 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 11 p.m., and tickets cost $15 plus fees via wantickets.com. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-695-8411, or visit mansionmiami.com.
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